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Student Service Learning Program Allows Advocacy

April 8, 2006
Student Service Learning Program Allows
Students to Earn Service Credit for Advocacy Activities

ROCKVILLE, MD – All high school students in Maryland must complete 60 hours of student service learning between grades 6 and 12 to graduate from high school. The state of Maryland allows the service learning credits to be earned in a variety of ways including community service and advocacy.

Advocacy can include participation in marches, rallies and other political activities provided the activities are legal and sponsored by a non-profit, tax exempt organization. The organization must attend a training session and be approved by the Montgomery County Volunteer Center and Montgomery County Public Schools. Students must complete a written assignment upon completion of the activity and have that approved by their school’s student service learning coordinator. In addition, students may not miss class to earn their student service learning credits when participating in advocacy activities.

The decision to allow students, who are on spring break next week, to earn service learning hours by participating in the immigration march next week generated numerous telephone calls to MCPS on Friday. Superintendent Jerry D. Weast explained the school district’s policy on student service learning in a memorandum to the Board of Education on Friday.

Below is the text of the memorandum:

The growing public interest in potential changes in immigration laws continues to impact the Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS). The interest reached national proportions this morning when conservative talk radio programs, including one syndicated nationally, began sharply criticizing provisions for students to earn student service learning credits for participation in advocacy activities, including legal rallies. The radio programs were criticizing me personally and urging listeners to call my office, as well as the Board of Education and others, to complain strongly about what they perceived as improper, if not illegal, school system support for protests among Hispanic students. Many of the callers were abusive to school system staff, using derogatory ethnic comments in expressing their views. I want to emphasize to you that staff are complying within the limits of appropriate laws, policies, and regulations regarding this issue.

The school system declined a request from a community organization to provide school buses to transport students to a major rally planned in Washington, D.C., on Monday, April 10, 2006. The decision was not based on the topic of the demonstration, but on the expenditure of public tax funds for political purposes; and a similar decision would be made for any other such event.

Nonetheless, we are very much aware of the provisions for student service learning hours, under the state graduation requirements, that specifically permit students to earn service hours when participating in advocacy events under specific conditions. These conditions require that the sponsoring organization must be a non-profit, tax-exempt group pre-approved by the Montgomery County Volunteer Center in coordination with MCPS staff. In addition to other stipulations, the sponsoring organization must verify each student’s participation individually and students must complete a written assignment before the service hours can be approved.

Several high schools, as you know from other updates, have experienced student demonstrations on their campuses in recent weeks. These are expected to continue after spring break. The Office of School Performance has provided timely information and guidance to principals about the continuing potential for these activities and the need to ensure that misunderstandings are avoided. For example, principals were urged last week to take steps to help students, especially those with limited English proficiency, understand their rights and responsibilities under relevant policies, regulations, and local school procedures. Principals also were encouraged to communicate with parents, given that some events may involve local community and parent organizations. The provisions of Policy JFA, Student Rights and Responsibilities, and the related regulation provide clear guidelines on students’ rights to assemble and to speak freely, as well as the limitations related to safety and security, school discipline, and unexcused absences.

This is not the first time the national debate on the immigration policy has engendered harsh commentary for the school system and staff as a target for political purposes. The national spotlight is to be expected because of our close proximity to Washington, D.C., and the outstanding academic achievements of our students, but the implicit threats in the calls we have received regarding the current debate in Congress raise a more troubling issue. Our school system proudly has one of the most diverse student enrollments in the nation, with nearly six of every 10 students identified as American Indian, African American, Hispanic, or Asian American. We have taken great strides in building an organizational culture of respect, and I would regret very deeply if political coarseness casts a shadow on the ideals of integration.

I will continue to keep you informed.

More information about the student service learning program can be found at www.mcpsssl.org.

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